Sense from the Sixth Grade


November 13, 1993|By HAL PIPER

There's always hope. Sixth-graders, at least, still have common sense, as I learned recently when I was lucky enough to spend a little time with Cathy Walrod's class at Dundalk Middle School.

The Baltimore County middle schools have a program called DEAR, an acronym for Drop Everything And Read. Time is scheduled each day for students to do just that. They bring their own books -- anything they want -- and at the assigned time classes and activities stop and kids just read for the pleasure of it.

Sometimes a guest reader is invited to share a book. My wife, the librarian, equipped me with ''On My Honor,'' by Marion Bauer. It is about two 12-year-old boys -- they've just finished sixth grade -- and a terrible thing that happens while they are swimming (against parental orders) in the local river.

This is supposed to be the television generation, with attention spans to match a 30-second commercial. But no reader could have wished for a more attentive audience than these 11-year-olds. Mrs. Walrod told me later that some of the pupils assumed that I must be famous, or why would I bother to come? They were quite thrilled to be visited by a famous person, she said, and I was quite thrilled to be taken for famous.

The students wrote me thank-you letters, no doubt at Mrs. Walrod's instigation, and most of them said they want to get ''On My Honor'' and read the rest of it. One boy actually might. He got the book for Christmas last year, but didn't think it looked very interesting. Now, he wrote, he intends to read it, and he promises ''I will never 'tell a book by its cover' again.'' If he never does, he'll be doing better than most of us.

After the reading, we chatted a bit, and for some reason the topic immediately became Beavis and Butt-head, the sociopathic cartoon characters on MTV. B&B were in the news because a 5-year-old child was said to have copied one of their pyromaniac tricks and burned down his home, killing his baby sister.

Public outcry caused the television network to promise to clean up Beavis and Butt-head's act, and also to show them only late at night, when 5-year-olds presumably would be safely tucked in bed.

This bothered the Dundalk kids, because they, too, will be safely tucked in bed before Beavis and Butt-head's new air time. Besides, they were skeptical of the premise behind the outcry. Who let the 5-year-old watch Beavis and Butt-head in the first place, they wondered? Who left a cigarette lighter in a child's reach? Who wasn't home supervising a 5-year-old?

Several of the students pledged to write op/ed articles and send them to me for publication. One actually got around to it. Kate McPherson may have a future in punditry. Already she has mastered the ''on the one hand . . . on the other'' technique.

''I don't watch Beavis and Butt-head because they get on my nerves and it doesn't set a good example on me or anybody,'' Kate wrote. But, ''What happened to the 5-year-old was not only because of Beavis and Butt-head but other things.''

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Suddenly, as often happens in conversations with sixth-graders, a mercurial shift occurred and we were talking about something else.

Somebody's little brother was in day care, and when he, or any of the children, tried to hug the day-care lady, she raised her hands above her head. The child could hug her, but she was not hugging the child.

The Dundalk sixth-graders understood why the day-care lady did this; she was afraid of being charged with child abuse. But they thought it was nutty. ''You ought to hug little kids,'' said one girl. ''They like it.''

Did I know, another asked, incredulously, that teachers in Baltimore County are issued rubber gloves? This is to protect the teacher from possible AIDS infection from a child's nosebleed or skinned knee.

In fact, I know more than that. Some schools, recognizing that a good teacher's instinct is to reach out to a child rather than fool with rubber gloves, have taken back the gloves and ordered HTC teachers not to touch a bleeding child, but to summon the school nurse.

In the age of multimillion-dollar lawsuits, it's a prudent policy. A teacher can get AIDS only by violating explicit orders not to touch a child. That puts the school system, and us taxpayers, in the clear.

It's a crazy world. At Dundalk Middle School, the sixth-graders know it, if we don't.

Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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